September 9, 2007

Thailand: The Fall of Thaksin

Thailand’s Future
Michael Connors
Canberra Times
September, 2006

Deposed Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra said earlier this year that when the King whispered he would leave office. The king whispered several times, but Thaksin kept coming back like the proverbial ghost that haunts Thai villages.

Thaksin has thick skin. He was nonplussed when King Bhumiphol lectured him about the need to accept criticism. In 2003, after the UN condemned his human rights record he said ‘the UN is not my father.’ Thaksin now says he might head a government in exile – from London - and he’s called for elections supervised by the UN. He must have a good sense of humour, too.

Like some cheap cinematic ghost thriller that many Thais love, this is a man addicted to serial re-appearance. With his wealth – trebled since his time in office – he may well head an exile government from London simply to keep himself in the limelight and to counter expected exposes of corruption during his term in office.

As foreign observers, including the Australian government, condemn the coup – which is easy enough to do, one wonders why the Howard government was not critical of Thaksin’s assault on democracy and human life while he was in office. Basically, democracy and human rights were put in customs quarantine while our government negotiated and then implemented a Free Trade Agreement with Thailand. Alexander Downer’s condemnation of the coup is mere diplomatic ritual, steeped in hypocrisy.

Thaksin’s human rights abuses included the normalization of extra-judicial murder during the war on drugs, with over 2000 people killed and horrendous abuses in the South of Thailand where a separatist insurgency is taking place. When over a 1000 protesters were arrested and placed in military trucks in October 2004, 78 died en-route to a military camp. Thaksin basically said the deaths were an honest mistake, the same excuse he used when he was exposed for illegally concealing millions of dollars worth of shares in the bank accounts of his domestic servants.

When human rights activists exposed the existence of mass graves in the South of Thailand in November last year, his government ignored calls to launch an inquiry. Provincial officials say the mass graves of over 200 people are most likely Cambodian immigrants who like to ‘fight when they get drunk’. Others wonder if they are related to extra-judicial killings. Islamic Councils in the South have indicated that exhumation for the purposes of autopsy would be acceptable, but Thai forensic scientists efforts to undertake an investigation has been frustrated by bureaucratic stone-walling over budget allocation and jurisdiction.

Those who bemoan the loss of Thaksin because he was poor-friendly should note that according to the United Nations World Development Report, Thailand’s Human Development Index world ranking dropped from 66 in 2002 to 73 in 2005. What is more, income disparities between rich and poor have remained largely the same under Thaksin. His pro-poor policies were selectively targeted, smartly packaged and poorly funded. Budgetary allocations to education declined under Thaksin. Health spending as a proportion of budget allocation in 2005, was at 1999 levels. Thaksin’s inventiveness was to paint the public budget as his personal benevolent purse.

Those who think Thaksin had a democratic mandate should keep in mind that his minders manipulated the Electoral Commission of Thailand to his advantage. His government also played games with the National Counter Corruption Commission – keeping it dysfunctional so that thousands of corruption cases were put on hold. State lottery funds were allegedly plundered to fund party activities. The coup was not against a democratic government as such. Thaksin’s hold on to power was about ensuring his own survival – knowing full well how vulnerable he would be to prosecution without political power.

Thaksin’s record does not excuse the military coup. They have not moved against Thaksin because of corruption and human rights abuses, but because it was clear that Thaksin was basically challenging the power of the palace and stacking almost all institutions with his own supporters. When the military says they launched the coup for the sake of democracy, they mean constitutional monarchy. Democracy can mean very different things.

The military looks like it will, in cooperation with other establishment forces, move Thailand towards a more conservative law and order democracy. Their reported approach to former Senate President Meechai Ruchaphan to head a Constitution Drafting Committee is a sign of the future. Meechai opposed a number of the progressive clauses in the now annulled 1997 Constitution.

The future of Thailand is now unclear. Some of those who fought for
Thaksin's removal in order to restore democracy are now turning towards fighting the military and its appointees.

On Friday they defied martial law and organized a protest against the coup.
Despite the ban on poltiical gatherings of more than five people, no one was arrested.

Now student groups are calling for a people's assembly. Some may have guiltily enjoyed last Wednesday's coup holiday, but as the struggle against the military unfolds the hangover may last a long time.

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